When I talk about my lifestyle, people always seem to be fascinated by the fact that I kill and butcher meat at home – I presume because it is so far removed from most people’s experience (and because it is an unpleasant process). They seem even more bemused if they know that I love animals.
Keeping animals, and eating meat, allows our family to lead a more sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle. This is contrary to conventional thinking – meat eating is normally associated with a higher environmental footprint. This is certainly the case in industrial agricultural systems where animal production is not integrated with other farming systems: many animals are raised on food that could be consumed by humans, and the waste produced from intensive systems becomes a disposal problem.
Integrated plants and animals have up until very recently been the norm in agricultural systems throughout the world. Animals excel at concentrating protein for human consumption. They turn material humans cannot eat, for example kitchen and garden scraps, leaves and grasses, into high-quality protein for human consumption.
Trying to grow our family’s protein directly – for instance in the form of soybeans or other legumes – would be impossible in our permaculture system. Further, the sustainability equation is different in permaculture systems, as we are using all of the animal’s products and services, not just concentrating on food for humans. Domestic animals are an integral part of many permaculture systems, performing multiple functions such as soil improvement, pest control and the provision of manure. If there are animals in the system, even primarily for eggs, milk or the services they provide rather than meat, they will breed and need culling.
Butchering animals on farm ensures they can have a happy life, and a quick death, which is very unlikely to have occurred in conventionally produced meat. Keeping only female animals just shifts the issue somewhere else – for every female kept a male will have been born – so unless you obtain female animals from someone you know, it is impossible to know what sort of life those males have had. Producing your own meat is really the only way to ensure humane conditions for the animals; even small, ethically minded farms are forced by law to transport animals to the centralised abattoirs to produce meat for sale.
In most Australian states and territories, meat that is produced for home consumption, and not removed from the property where the animal was killed, is exempt from the rules regarding the commercial production of meat, so there should be no legal impediments to producing your own meat at home.
It is not easy to kill and process an animal if you have not done so before. It is best to learn from someone with experience, and to have them by your side to help out at first. And if you are butchering a bigger animal, it is useful to have many people on hand to share the job, even if you are very experienced.
The butchering process will vary with species, but the basic procedure is: catch the animal (the tamer they are the less stress they will experience at this stage); kill the animal; drain the blood (preferably by hanging the carcass upside down with the head removed); skin the carcass (or pluck in the case of poultry, or scrape in the case of pigs); remove the innards; hang or refrigerate the carcass; and dispose of the scraps appropriately. The carcass can be butchered down into further parts once it has hung for a while (which depends on the size and type of animal, and the prevailing weather).
The chicken is one of the most common permaculture animals, and one of the easiest to kill and butcher, so this procedure is outlined in more detail below. We should celebrate animals in our system, for all their useful products and services, but also because they add to our quality of life, entertaining and inspiring us. We need to become more connected with the cycle of life, and learn to kill and butcher our own food animals in a humane manner.
Killing and dressing a chicken steps.
1. Materials – sharp knife, clean bowl, ties and somewhere to hang the chicken (and a chicken).
2. Catch the chook and keep it calm.
3. Killing by breaking the neck.
4. Tying up via loops around the legs.
5. Exposing some skin on the thigh.
6. Cutting through the skin.
7. Peeling off the skin from this starting point.
8. More skin off.
9. Removing the crop.
10. Cutting around the vent.
11. More cutting around the vent.
12. Pulling the lower intestine out.
13. Enlarging the hole.
14. Inserting hand to body cavity.
15. Removing innards.
16. Liver with bile sac.
17. Cutting off feet.
Killing And Dressing A Chicken
You will need:
- somewhere to hang the chicken while you are butchering – a ladder, a tall wire fence or an old swing set frame are all possibilities – and twine for the tying
- a small sharp knife and sharpener
- a clean bowl for the liver and heart
- old clothes, or a good apron
- a bucket for the intestines and other scraps
- a pillowslip to collect feathers in (optional)
- a pot of very hot water that will fit the chicken (optional).
There are many ways to kill a chicken quickly and humanely.
For those with a strong hand, breaking the chicken’s neck is a good option. Hold the chicken upside down by its two feet and with the other hand twist the head up and back while pulling both hands apart.
A variation on this is to put the chicken’s neck under a broomstick with the head on the ground facing away from you, hold the broomstick firmly down on either side of the neck with your feet, and using both hands pull the legs up to break the neck.
The traditional chopping block and axe work well too, although this tends to be easier with two people.
Putting the head and neck into a cone made of metal or tough plastic is another method – the head will stick out of the end and the cone will keep the chicken still and prevent too much flapping while the head is removed either by chopping with an axe or cutting quickly with a very sharp knife.
Once the chicken is dead it will flap wildly. This helps pump the blood from the body, so if the head has not been removed it should be as soon as possible and the chicken hung upside down at a comfortable height for you to work at. Wait until the flapping has stopped and the blood has stopped flowing.
It is much easier and quicker to skin a chicken than to pluck it. I only pluck chickens that I intend to roast, as the skin keeps the meat from drying out in the oven (and goes deliciously crispy as it cooks!).
To skin the chicken, remove a handful of feathers from the thigh to expose the skin and make a very shallow cut being careful not to damage the muscle tissue underneath. Do the same on the other side and start pulling the skin away from these starting points; while the carcass is still warm it should come away easily with a minimum of force. Cut the skin around the top of the unfeathered part of the legs and around the vent.
Plucking the feathers is not hard, just time consuming, particularly for those who are not experienced. Although the feathers tend to come out fairly easily, dunking the carcass in very hot water can help. Grab a small handful of feathers and pull gently but firmly away from the skin – these should come out easily on the chest, legs and back but might take some more force on the wings and tail. Once most of the feathers are out you will be left with many small single, harder to grab feathers that can be removed later – and you can resort to tweezers if you have to!
Next, find the crop – the food sack located within the skin of the neck. Carefully sever it from the oesophagus and remove it. Cut around the vent if you haven’t already during skinning. Pull this ring of skin very gently so that the attached intestine emerges from the hole – you may need to gently cut some connective tissue as you do this. This allows you to hang the end of the digestive system away from the body, reducing the likelihood of faecal contamination. Then cut through a bit more of the muscle tissue on the belly until you can just fit your hand in, being very careful not to puncture the intestines below. Slip your hand into the body cavity (this sounds far worse than it actually feels) and move your fingers gently between the body wall and the intestines to break the fine connective tissue. Once these are loose, the whole digestive tract should pull out easily as you remove your hand.
Remove the large, maroon liver from the rest of the innards and carefully cut off the small bile sack – this is easy to spot as it is bright green. If you accidentally puncture this make sure you give the liver a wash. Check for the heart, which may or may not have come out with the digestive tract – remove it separately if need be. Cut off the neck if you don’t need it for the dish you will be cooking, remove the legs at the joint where the scaly skin starts and you are done!
If you accidentally broke the intestine or otherwise got the carcass dirty you should wash it well and dry it. If not, the carcass is better unwashed as the moisture provides habitat for pathogens to breed – either way, make sure the chicken is as dry as possible before you store it in a container or plastic bag in the refrigerator. It is best refrigerated for at least a day before cooking.
Dispose of the parts you are not using in a hot compost, bury in a hole or slip under some heavy mulch in the garden.